SPOTLIGHT ON: Tom Cunniff, former writer for the J. Peterman catalog
The perfect blend of eccentricity, anachronism and great writing, the J. Peterman catalog has long been a primary influence on the way (and the reason) we write Rye & Rivet. Today we depart from our usual interviews with leather toolers and designers to give you an interview with a craftsman of another kind. Tom Cunniff was a writer for J. Peterman for ten years—we’ve asked him to shed some light on the eclectic, always intriguing style of this iconic catalog that’s so close to our hearts.
RYE & RIVET: The style of the J. Peterman catalogs, for many reasons, was (and continues to be) truly distinct. What is the importance of the writing style in forming that character?
TOM CUNNIFF: The creative genius behind the J. Peterman catalog was a writer named Don Staley. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago. While there really is a J. Peterman, when you think of that voice and the character of that brand it was 100% Don Staley.
Don was exactly what you’d imagine when you read the catalog. That voice was him. He was astonishingly, almost supernaturally well-read and cultured, but with humor and a complete lack of pretension. He was an intellectual who was fascinated by stories and how people made decisions.
There never would have been a J. Peterman catalog as we knew it without Don’s personality. The writing style was entirely Don’s voice. My job was like being a studio guitarist who is called in to play when BB King isn’t available: I had to do my best to channel Don and write so it sounded like him.
R&R: The idea of “brand as storyteller”, particularly in menswear, seems to be having a renaissance moment. Why now?
TC: I think it might actually be the only way to sell menswear. Women like fashion, but the thought of it scares the average guy half to death. Look at what most men wear: they pick things that render them invisible: blue polo shirt, khakis. The role of the stories is to give men courage, by providing a set of instructions. They help us understand what role we will play when we put on a given set of clothes. Spencer Tracy used to say “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” That’s what a smart story does: it helps us know the character’s backstory, hints at how a guy like that would stand, helps us hit our marks and deliver our lines with confidence.
R&R: To many of us, the rather long storytelling passages of the J. Peterman catalog are inextricably linked to the identity of the brand as a whole. But these days especially, copywriters are told to cut down more and more since it’s assumed the consumer won’t read most of the copy. How do you strike a balance between holding the attention of the reader and still maintaining that signature character?
TC: People will read forever if you give them a good reason to read. Long copy needs enough mystery and intrigue to keep you slightly off-balance. Most copy is awful because many business people are terrified of mystery, intrigue, humor, seduction, surprise — all of the very human things that make for good storytelling. They zero in on exactly what makes a story worth reading and say “get rid of that, I don’t know what that means”. I used to write and re-write drafts until the first paragraph hinted at something irresistible but left a whole set of questions unanswered. If the reader knows exactly where the story is going, what kind of idiot would bother reading the rest of the way.
Also: people read if the story, on some level, is about them.
R&R: What brand would you say is the J. Peterman of the moment, in terms of a fully-formed, unique identity? Who is capturing the imagination?
TC: Brands like John Varvatos and Tommy Bahama each have a distinct aesthetic. It comes more from merchandise than copy, but each has a definite point of view about the world. Apple knows who and what they are. So do Kimpton Hotels. As important as copy and art direction are, companies that have a unique identity generally express it in the product. The magic of J. Peterman was Don’s ability to inject a completely ordinary item — a t-shirt, a baseball cap — with style and character, purely through writing. It became special because of the way he described it. I don’t know that anybody else has been able to achieve that in the same way, before or since.
R&R: What’s the best lesson you learned or piece of advice you were given while writing for J. Peterman?
TC: Don used to say that anything beyond jeans and a t-shirt is a costume: the whole reason you put it on is to help people understand who your character is. As you walk into a room full of strangers, your clothing is quietly communicating a whole set of information about you. Not just casual or formal, rich or poor. When you walk into a room wearing a J. Peterman horseman’s duster, you’re providing a rich set of clues about who you are and how interesting you might be.
R&R: What’s the most interesting product backstory you encountered during your time at J. Peterman?
TC: My favorite story is, naturally, about Don. One day my phone rang, and the second I picked it up Don said “I’m having a hell of a fight with Peterman. I’m going to ask you something, but DON’T think about. Just say yes or no.” I said “Sure, what is it?” Don said “Should the next catalog have a monocle in it? Yes or no.” I immediately said “Absolutely yes.” Don shot back “OK, why?”
I said, “We’ve had a lot of ordinary stuff in the catalog lately. I know it’s all selling well, but putting a monocle in the catalog will be a fun little shock. It will keep people turning the pages, wondering what other surprises are waiting. It doesn’t matter if we sell a single monocle, the job of the monocle is to keep people interested.”
Don shouted “YES! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.” He slammed the phone down on the table, and I could hear him storming down the hall yelling “Peterman, the monocle is going in that damn catalog”. It was a very proud moment for me, because Don knew I really understood what made the catalog sell.
Did we sell any monocles? Yes we did. Tons of them.
R&R: Finally, in our tradition: what’s your drink of choice?
TC: I like Hendricks and Tonic. I stubbornly drink them all winter until the weather finally yields to my will and becomes exactly right for a gin and tonic. My wife insists the seasons will change whether I do this or not, but I am not about to take a chance with something so important.
Thanks again to Tom Cunniff for his vibrant and thoughtful answers to our questions. Check him out here.